The demonization of atheists

Good Without God T ShirtAfter former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave his speech on the role of religion in public life, more than a few pundits and columnists criticized it for not including atheists and agnostics in the "symphony of faith." But while the chattering class chattered, I didn't see too much in the mainstream media. Truth is that atheists have a much more difficult voting audience than Mormons. Here's how Jacob Sullum put it in Reason magazine:

In a December 6-9 Gallup poll, nearly half of the respondents endorsed an even stronger anti-atheist statement, saying they would refuse to vote for "a generally well-qualified person" of their own party "who happened to be an atheist." The corresponding number for a Mormon candidate was 17 percent, about the same as before Romney's speech.

Considering this rather dramatic statistic, I'm surprised there hasn't been more coverage of this small but vocal minority. So it was nice to see Agence France Press contribute to the matter. Unfortunately it wasn't terribly well reported or written. Or edited. There's a quote by someone whose last name is Stark (about how Jimmy Carter did a "wonderful job" as president) that is not previously introduced in the piece. Here's the lede to the ironically headlined "Non-believing US voters feel demonized":

One presidential hopeful is a preacher, another proudly Mormon, and most openly tout their Christianity. In an arena where faith can make or break a politician, the one in 10 Americans who profess no religion feel left in the cold.

"They're very disconcerted," said Darren Sherkat, an atheist sociology professor specializing in religion at Southern Illinois University.

"They're horrified by both the Democratic and Republican rhetoric surrounding religion -- that people who are not religious ... are immoral, that they're not qualified to serve in public office," he said.

The anonymous reporter goes on to cite an incident of a young man running for a local school board being campaigned against -- by one individual -- on account of his atheism. But I think Sherkat's quote could use some better support. If Democrat and Republican rhetoric is that atheists are immoral or unqualified, there should be plenty of examples of that rhetoric. Go ahead and quote some of them.

Instead the piece just quotes leaders of atheist groups complaining that candidates face a test of their faith credentials:

"Atheists and agnostics find all the candidates distressingly religious," said Michael Shermer, an atheist writer and publisher of Skeptic magazine.

"Legally, there is no religious test for office, but culturally there obviously is," he said, as polls showed Republican Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, surging ahead in key early nominating states.

Religion surfaced prominently when Huckabee's rival Mitt Romney, a member of the Mormon church, made a bid this month to reassure the powerful conservative Christian voting bloc.

"I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty," Romney said, fighting to dispel mistrust of his denomination, which some dismiss as a sect.

"Yeah, well, what about the approximately 30 million American nonbelievers, Mitt?" Shermer retorted, in comments to AFP. "You have no plans to represent us, or to protect and defend the constitution for us?"

I think it's great to include a quote like Shermer's. But it's not like Romney wasn't asked about this after his speech. His response should be included in a mainstream news piece. Here's what Romney said about the matter when asked by Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: But when you say freedom requires religion, can you be a moral person and be an atheist?

GOV. ROMNEY: Oh, oh, of course. Oh, of course.

MR. RUSSERT: And participate in freedom?

GOV. ROMNEY: Oh, of course. . . .

MR. RUSSERT: So if you determined that the most qualified person for the Supreme Court or for attorney general or secretary of education happened to be an atheist or an agnostic, that wouldn't prevent you from appointing them?

GOV. ROMNEY: Of course not. You, you, you look at individuals based upon their skills and their ability, their values, their intelligence. And there are many who are agnostic or atheist or who have very different beliefs about the nature of the divine than I do, and, and you evaluate them based on their skills.

In a country that fuses religion and political rhetoric as much as ours does, stories about the plight of atheists and agnostics are important. They're so important, in fact, that they should be done much better than this.

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